Cultura Nicaragüense


ImageThe Tuesday before Ash Wednesday was celebrated as Fastnacht Dienstag by my grandmother. She explained to us that you had to use up all the sugar in the house because there were no sweets during lent.  The traditional way to do this in Pennsylvania Dutch households are Fastnachtkuchen – fresh fried donuts.  We made them a few times growing up, at least once using a recipe that called for mashed potatoes.  I remember them being delicious. A few weeks ago we stopped by the women’s initiative in Achuapa where the Social Business Network and Juan Francisco Paz Silva Coop are currently offering courses to women organized in groups – Baking, Piñata making and Crafts, and Natural Medicine. The baking class was in the kitchen – frying up donuts. And it happened to be Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. I shared the story about my grandmother’s Fastnachtkuchen and found out that while it really was just a coincidence that the class was making donuts that day, there is a Nicaraguan tradition of making and eating buñuelos the day before Ash Wednesday. Sweet!

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Mari, a student in the course, proudly holds up the tray of donuts they had learned to make. They were delicious!

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Continuing the Thanksgiving Theme, here is my favorite table grace in Spanish:

Gracias Señor por el pan.  Da pan al que tiene hambre 
y hambre de justicia al los que tienen pan.
 Gracias Señor por el pan.

A rough translation reads:

Lord, bless this food we are about to receive.  To those who hunger give bread; and to those who have bread give the hunger for  justice.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone where ever you are, may you all be surrounded by family and sitting down to a table of good food, grown by loving hands that worked in justice and dignity to provide us with our nourishment.

A colorful array of locally produced products in Achuapa, Nicaragua from sesame oil to carao syrup to nancite wine!

A colorful array of locally produced products in Achuapa, Nicaragua from sesame oil to carao syrup to nancite wine!

Once upon a time I believed that creating and supporting healthy local food systems meant eliminating imported products – for example, sticking to a 100 mile-diet.  I believed that preaching a local food only diet could solve societal issues such as a disconnect from agricultural businesses and the source of our food, struggling local economies, and poor health and nutrition.  But I began to question that belief as my work in Nicaragua evolved from development centered NGO work to trade oriented development work.  As I have gotten to know several fair trade cooperatives, their histories and their work today, I have had to reassess to a certain extent my intense focus on the benefits of consuming only local food.  Maybe there is a space for positive global trade, one that can, despite the enormous capital and fuel resources, create net positive social impact and work pretty hard on the environmental ones too.  After all, while many local farms in the US have sprung up, grown and profited off of the local food movement, local independent coffee roasters have too!  In general I am a supporter of positive campaigning (put your energy behind what you DO want – if not instead than at least as well as what you DON”T want).  I would not recommend to any local food advocate to go an a campaign to convince the masses to stop drinking their coffee.  Not worth your energy.

It is worth your energy to drink the right coffee though!  Over the years I have found that the agricultural cooperatives I work with here that export coffee and sesame share many of the same values as movements I connect with in the states, such as the local food movement.  The funds they generate – through exporting a commodity to people in countries whose climates or economies that do not support the production of that crop – are often invested in funding environmental youth movements, organic fertilizer production, educational scholarships, and strengthening local food networks.  Every coffee coop we work with has or is currently developing a national brand of export quality coffee to market nationally.  This focus on raising the quality of the Nicaraguan coffee culture through national distribution is a strategy that I find both empowering and an example of good business.  Investing in a product for local markets will help the coops grow, reach new markets, and give them a way to leverage the difference between national and international prices to make the best business decisions each year – as well as strengthening the local food system by providing Nicaraguans the opportunity to drink high quality Nicaraguan coffee.

Another coop we work with, the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative in Achuapa, exports sesame oil to Europe, mostly for use in cosmetics.  The exports work like the engine that fuels the Cooperative.  It means the Cooperative provides jobs for locals (many of them youth) to run the oil press, the business administration, and the services the coop offers, it generates fair trade premiums – funds that are ear marked for social or environmental projects.  The profits are invested into the business and distributed amongst its members, similar to dividends in a public company.

Doña Socorro displays her handmade pottery at a coop sponsored fair.

Doña Socorro displays her handmade pottery at a coop sponsored fair.

Because the cooperative has been successful both in producing a quality product that has demand on the market and in investing their profits in the community, other organizations are attracted to working with them, and they have been able to collaborate with local and international development organizations on projects improving farm diversity, establishing technical schools, improving access to potable water, and strengthening local food networks.  Over the last three years, the coop has invested in developing a local line of products using what is available and abundant – including sesame, a very nutritious grain which is not a staple of Nicaraguan cuisine.  Through the creativity of some coop members and employees, and now through a new initiative to Recognize the Unpaid Work of Women in the cost of the sesame and use those funds to help women fully participate in local communities and economies, the coop is lending their facilities and marketing support to the development of new products.  The first Nicaraguan-produced Tahini, which has at least made a splash amongst some local expats, was revolutionized when Doña Ernestina, who works at the coop, mixed it with honey produced by the coop and created a sweet sticky spread that appeals more to a Nicaraguan palate.  Individuals and groups of women in Achuapa have the full support of the cooperative in developing and marketing foods made from local ingredients to local communities – funded through the export of sesame oil and sesame seeds to communities as far away as Europe, the US, and Japan.

Suddenly, export vs. local isn’t so black and white anymore.  When a democratic organization with a strong social and environmental vision successfully enters an international market, the impact can be felt very locally.

This year we weren’t the only vehicle offering rides to members of the village – so nearly everyone had a space if they wanted to ride!

The focus of the last few days for both Nick and I has been to fulfill our civic duties of voting.  Since Nick just got his Nicaraguan citizenship in April, this was the first time during his 20-something years in Nicaragua that he got to enter the polls and cast a vote.  Even though we live in León, he chose to register to vote in the town of Achuapa, a much smaller village in the northernmost part of the department of León, where he first came and lived.  Every election he makes a point of helping his friends in the rural villages get to the polls by driving a 4X4 truck to help the people who would have difficulties walking the 5km between the village and the polls, so it made sense for him to register to vote there too.

For me, voting was a very different struggle.  I anticipated being well prepared and voting months ago, since the information on absentee voting in the states said ballots were sent out 45 days before the election.  When I failed to receive my ballot I checked my local board of elections page – it said 35 days before the election.  So I held onto hope that it would come to my US address before I left for Nicaragua, but it didn’t.  When I got here and called my board of elections to ask what to do, they said they would express mail a ballot to Nicaragua.  That was two weeks ago.  It never arrived.  So, very concerned that even though I started working on this over two months ago I wasn’t going to be able to vote after all, I called the embassy here in Managua.  And they told me what I should have done two weeks ago: fill out a Federal Emergency Write-in Ballot.

The difference is that when you register for the write-in ballot, it only has spaces to choose candidates for president, senate and congress.  For all local candidates there are blank spaces to write in the names of the candidates.  Luckily my parents had by this point received the absentee ballot I requested two months before, and they sent me a scan so I had the names of the candidates for local judges, state senate, etc.  Among all my American friends here, I was the last to not have voted, and by Friday I knew it was down to the wire.  Since my county requires ballots to be postmarked by the US postal service by today, I decided to make the trip to Managua and deliver my ballot to the embassy where they postmark mail the day they receive it rather than risk sending it from a mail service in León.  I was a bit stressed and embarrassed to have let this go until the last minute, and very frustrated as the clock ticked by on Friday when the internet here kept crashing and preventing me from printing out the official envelopes and ballot I needed before the bus left to Managua.  I felt much better when I finally made it to the Embassy with my ballot all filled out and printed on time and found another 15 or so Americans inside, struggling to use the one computer available to vote and even register!!  So, if all goes well and the Embassy does its job of postmarking and getting the ballots to the states in a diplomatic pouch (est. 7-10 days to arrive), I will have fulfilled the requirements for absentee voting in my county and it will be counted!  Certainly the most stressful ballot I’ve ever cast, but it’s good to know now about the Emergency ballot – and that it works (hopefully!)

Nick, Marcelino, and Lencho before going in to vote. Look behind them at the gate for the poll – no line!

Nick also knew he had to travel in order to be able to vote, and so he booked his flights coming home from a conference on Cooperatives in England with an extra long layover to reduce the risk of missing a flight.  It worked, and I met him at the airport at 9pm on Saturday to drive 4 hours up to Achuapa.  On our trip up for the presidential elections last year, there was tangible tension in the community and at the polls between members of the three main political parties.  Because of multiple ballots for different elections (presidential, representatives for the OAS, etc.) there were long lines and some people waited for hours before voting.  At some polls, there were skirmishes when the results were announced and in one of the 22 polling stations in the municipality there was an attempt to sabotage the case of ballots as they were transported from the rural voting station to the town.

Getting out to vote is a social event here. Even though there wasn’t much waiting on line this year, people who made the trip to vote still hung out afterward outside the polls. Here Nick and a whole score of voters show off their stamped thumbs – proof they voted!

This year, for the mayoral elections, the process was smoother and there was less tension and much less waiting in lines, although at the end of the evening the groups waiting in the dark outside the polls for the results still felt nervous about whether there would be a violent reaction to the results.  Instead of waiting for the results at the rural polling station, we drove down the mountain to the town of Achuapa, where there were crowds outside the house there they wrote the results of each polling station up in marker on big pieces of white paper.  The news was – peaceful elections across the municipality.  With the results in from about three quarters of the polling stations there was a clear majority of votes from the Sandinista party, which meant that the current mayor was re-elected for another 4 year term.  In the San Nicolas polling station where Nick voted, of 505 votes cast 66.53% voted to reelect David Figueroa, and in the total municipality of Achuapa of 6,956 votes cast he won with a 61.34% majority.  The reports for the national elections were delayed, possibly in an attempt to prevent violence among the crowds still gathered at polling stations intil after midnight.  The result – an overwhelming sweep across the nation of Sandinista mayors.  Of note – one victory on the atlantic coast for a mayor from the Yatama party, an Miskito political party whose name means “Children of Mother Earth”, that have participated in elections here since 1990.

Nick waits on line to vote for the first time along with friends he has known for over twenty years!

Again, for several reasons the process of voting in Nicaragua impressed me.  The number of volunteers needed to run the polling station is enormous – members of the village left at 4am to walk in the dark for two hours to volunteer as back-up poll workers – essentially to sit around all day and wait until someone else who is checking off names or stamping fingers to take a bathroom break.  The primary poll workers were required to arrive the night before, and to sleep on mats in the polling stations in order to safeguard the ballots and get set up to open at 7am the next day.  In the village where we were, every single eligible voter who we spoke with made it to the polls, regardless of age, disability, or illness.  This young democracy is energized – the civic right to vote is taken very seriously, and just the sheer undertaking of making voting accessible in rural communities that have no electricity, no phone signal, and nearly impassible roads requires an enormous amount of organization and training.  As in all democracies (including my own!) there are many opportunities for improvement.  There are always those stories of voters names missing from the list, dodgy management of polling stations or ballots, and even more concerning death threats of candidates – and apparently the mayor of Achuapa received such a death threat a week ago as he was running for reelection for the first time since the amendment two years ago which allows for reelection.  As I have heard many people here say, elections are really a type of peaceful warfare.

Back in the village, a “yay peaceful elections (and riding in trucks!) are so much fun” celebratory dance to traditional Nicaraguan folk music.

An interesting result of being in a developing country is the unequal access to information available due to rapid – but uneven – advanced in technology.  Three and half years ago when I first visited the rural villages in Achuapa, there was no electricity and not even solar panels.  The houses were all illuminated with kerosene lamps, and battery powered radios brought the national and international news.  About two years ago each of the 26 houses of Lagartillo received a solar panel from a municipal project, and then less than a year later the government installed a new electrical line and now the houses all sport light bulbs, blenders, and of course – televisions.  This year after voting, many villagers returned to their houses and turned on the news, like most of us will do tomorrow.  The difference being that here the infrastructure for instantaneous communication hasn’t reached all parts equally.  So in the village, families could watch the instantaneous results from the mayoral election in the capital city on the national news, but with no local TV station and still no phone signal in the village the results of their own local mayoral election were still hours away from arriving.

The first reports from the Supreme Electoral Counsel report a national participation in the mayoral elections of 57%.  Last year they reported above 80% participation for the presidential elections, an election which compelled many Nicaraguans from abroad since there is no absentee voting here.  Tomorrow we will find out how the US compares with participation.   For all you at home, and especially those in the Northeast who, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy are maybe facing logistical difficulties to go vote, take some inspiration from our Nicaraguan friends who don’t think twice about walking for kilometers on dirt roads before dawn to participate in their democracy, and make it a priority to vote tomorrow!

Teasing is an important part of Nicaragua humor. Sometimes people say the opposite of what they mean, and if you are lucky they’ll accompany it with a smile or a wink to convey it’s a joke.  Usually I get it – it’s fun to joke around with friends this way, and sometimes a creative way complimenting someone.  Like most types of humor it generally works best among close friends or coworkers, people who you know well enough to be able to detect the double meaning!

This is a type of humor I have learned well here, and can really enjoy.  For example, while I was serving plate after plate of food from a giant pot of carne en baho this weekend, every now and then I would look up from the monotonous task of selecting the right proportion of yucca, plantain, meat and salad to put on a plate and handing it to the next person waiting and see an old wonderful friend who I haven’t seen in a very long time.  “Hi!!! Que bueno que veniste, pero que lastimo que ya se acabó la comida y no hay nada para ofrecerte….disculpe…”  “Hi!!!  So nice of you to come, but such a shame the food just ran out and there is nothing to offer you…” All while standing obviously in front of a giant pot of steaming dinner.  And smiling.  Of course it’s a joke, and received with a good laugh and a hug.

Sometimes the humor is a bit harder to detect, though.  The following day we delivered plates of leftover baho to some of our neighbors, and friends who couldn’t make it to the party.  I walked a heaping plate of food down the block to where a family has a small pulpería (corner store) that we always shop at.  We don’t know the family very well, but we see them nearly every day (sometimes several times a day if our shopping is disorganized!).  There are so many little stores scattered around the town, that almost anything you want is dangerously convenient.  It suddenly becomes an incredible nuisance to have to walk the five blocks to the nearest supermarket for something because the pulpería a half block away doesn’t stock it!

The older señora who is super sweet wasn’t attending the store at the moment, so I left the food with her grand daughter and asked her to just hold on to the ceramic plate and we would pick it up later.  An hour later I was walking down the street and the older señora waved me over.  “Su plato!” she called to me.  I went over to get our plate, and she said thank you for the food and asked whose birthday we had been celebrating.  Then she said, “Gracias, pero fue muy poquito, fue solo poquito.” “Thanks, but it wasn’t very much.  It was just a really little bit.”  She said it so seriously, and wrinkled her brow just a bit, and I was totally taken aback.  We don’t even really know them, they aren’t really friends, and she was complaining that I didn’t give her more than one plate of bah0!  “Well, we just divided up what we had and gave it around to everyone, to all the neighbors, even the drunk who is always on the corner you know….” I was kind of flustered and felt silly making excuses but was also a bit offended.  Man, some of the people here sure are hard to please.

Nick laughed when I explained that I was a bit offended by her reaction.  Apparently, saying that food is “just a little bit” is a common way of saying it was really delicious and they could have eaten much more of it!  Well, come to think of it  I guess she was smiling after she said it, and thanked me again, but I was so caught off guard by her words, I didn’t pay much attention to that.  Even after several years here, it still pays to talk things over with a person whose been here longer before getting annoyed at someone.  Imagine if I hadn’t, and stopped shopping there or chatting with this nice woman because I thought she had been so ungrateful.  The layers of culturally specific information cast over a simple phrase can so easily obscure its true meaning!

 

Many people – friends, folks who have encountered my blog in a search, friends of friends – contact me when they are planning a trip to Nicaragua or other latin american countries asking for advice.  This post attempts to summarize what I often tell people, and I’ll keep adding to it as I remember what I have told people in the past, and what I wish I had been told before my own trips!  I will try to start with the most general travelling information and then become more specific to the area of Nicaragua that I know the best.  Please feel free to add your own travelling advice as a comment; the more information, the more that future e can sift through and be better prepared for their own unique experience.

Read, read, read! And not just the guidebooks.  If you are taking a spring break trip and staying in hostels, a guide book might be just fine.  But if you are coming to live, volunteer for a few weeks or months, or want a deeper understanding of where you will be, I would recommend more memoirs and novels than guidebooks and Wikipedia.

 

La Yuma is the most recent Nicaraguan feature-length film.

Creative writing from a personal voice – whether written by a foreigner or a translated national author – can lend itself to a deeper visceral understanding of a country.  In the application process for a Fulbright, I read many textbooks and academic papers about Nicaragua, but after arriving I found that snippets of the personal reflections of John Brentlinger in The Best of What We Are and Gioconda Belli’s The Country Under My Skin were what I drew on for a better understanding of the way Nicaraguans continue to live their historical experiences.  And if you have the time, watching movies directed and produced in country is a fantastic way to get a pre-glimpse of a culture – although keep in mind that just like in Hollywood aspects of the culture may be greatly exaggerated for dramatic effect!

After you read everything you can find, tell yourself you don’t know anything.  My way of saying, keep an open mind.  It may be the most important piece of advice you always get, and is by far the hardest advice to follow.  You can read everything you can find on the Nicaraguan Revolution or farming in Nicaragua, but you aren’t learning about what you will encounter.  All you can do ahead of time is create a context to place your future experience in, and help speed your learning and acculturation process in country.  When you arrive and discover the nuances and circumstances in the particular community you stay in, your previous reading will add layers of context and understanding to the personal stories you hear, but they won’t have revealed them to you ahead of time!

Try to understand how you like to travel, and treat yourself well.   If you aren’t comfortable crashing on the floor of your college friend’s apartment for a weekend and always prefer to find a nearby hotel, then a homestay in a foreign country might not be the best plan for the first week of your trip.  If you can’t stand waiting for a subway or the crowds on rush hour trains in your home town, than spending a little extra to set up private transportation in a foreign country might be worth it to you.  Don’t expect that your comfort levels will all of a sudden change because you are telling yourself it’s an adventure!

Markets are colorful exciting places. Keep your bags and pockets securely closed, and your ears, eyes, and conversations open.

Talk to as many people as you can.  That goes for before and during your trip.  I am always happy to talk about my experiences in Nicaragua to folks who are hoping to come.  Once you are in country, don’t be shy about talking!  You can and should be wary of putting too much confidence in people you just meet, but there is a huge difference between having a conversation with a woman at the market and getting into a cab with her.  Think about how an upbeat, short conversation with the cashier at a store can change your whole shopping experience there – the same can be true of a day trip in a foreign city.  Relax a little and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself as you make mistakes in Spanish!  Most folks are very encouraging and delighted that you are learning their language.

Expect to be different, expect to be a novelty!  You may have spent months preparing for your trip, researching the history, culture, food, and climate of where you are going so you feel prepared to not make unrealistic judgements or assumptions.  But it’s almost guaranteed that the people you will meet have not spent months reading up and educating themselves on your culture!  If you have chosen to travel and volunteer with an organization that has a well established history of working with foreign volunteers, the leaders you work with should be familiar with your culture and be respectful and understanding of things you may struggle with.  But that may not extend to the other people you encounter – the children you tutor, the farmers you visit, and the families you visit may have not expected to have a foreigner walk into their house, and may be surprised and curious.  Of course they will ask you lots of questions.  Think about what kinds of short anecdotes about your family or your town you would like to tell to illustrate who you are and where you come from, and try to enjoy the attention.

Ask for References for Volunteer Organizations.  Unless you have personally met the people you will be working with, or know several people who have volunteered with them recently, I always recommend asking for a reference to speak with someone who has volunteered in the past.  Even if you find the project through a network that is well-known (like WWOOF, or Idealist), the networking organization often doesn’t have a personal relationship with all the projects, and even if they did couldn’t guarantee that you will agree with their philosophy or work ethic on the ground.

What to Take: Everyone asks me what they should take.  The guidebooks for the area you are going to should be the best reference, make sure the edition you have is recent.  Here are a few things I tell people who are coming to the pacific or northern Nicaraguan regions:

  • Don’t over pack Pharmaceuticals.  In my experience, over the counter drugs such as immodium, aspirin, even vitamin C are easy to find and abundant (sometimes it feels like there is a pharmacy on every corner of León!).  A small amount of what you would want on hand is a good idea, but you don’t have to bring a year’s worth of painkillers because you know you use it for migraines.  Do bring sufficient amounts of any prescription medications, and any alternative supplements you want.  My staples that I carry with me from the states are non-refridgerated Acidophilus (I take them on a regular basis), zinc and echinacea for colds, and activated charcoal (a natural anti-diarrheal that is gentler on your intestines than immodium).  I have also met travelers who recommend different natural digestive aids such as grapefruit seed extract and bentonite clay that may be difficult to find outside the US.
  • For Women Only. You are probably already aware that in Latin America most women use rags or disposable menstrual pads, and you shouldn’t expect to find tampons in the corner drugstores.  Personally, I highly recommend the diva cup or moon cup.  It may take some courage and extra care with hygiene (which can only be good anyway), but it gives me a lot of freedom.  It has also, on several occasions, been an interesting conversation piece that has helped me to understand Nicaraguan women’s views of their bodies!
  • Clothing. In my experience, Nicaraguans care a lot about their appearance and dress very nicely.  That doesn’t mean formal attire, but it does mean clean, un-stained well fitting clothing.  Clean jeans and nice T-shirts, when they fit you well and are not cut offs or torn (unless of course they are the pre-torn designer jeans) are ubiquitous clothes that are acceptable on nearly every occasion.  Shorts are not often worn in public, although in the cities young girls and women will wear very short tight shorts to go out dancing at the clubs.  Some women in Evangelical or other religious groups do not wear pants either, but I have never met anyone who was offended by me wearing pants.  For farm work and any outdoor activities, I generally choose to cover up to protect myself from the sun with long jeans or light pants, a t-shirt, and light cotton button down blouse with long sleeves.  If you are doing home stays or travelling in the rural areas, you will very much appreciate having some bathing clothes!  (Different from a bathing suit).  Bathing often takes place outside, sometimes next to the well where you draw buckets of water to then scoop over your head, or sometimes behind a screen made of a sheet, sticks, or plastic.  I have seen women and men washing themselves out in the open, soaping both themselves and the clothes they are wearing before going inside to change and hanging their laundry out afterward.  Don’t expect privacy, and you will be happy you remembered those plastic flip flops, quick drying shorts and t-shirt or tank top to shower in.
  • Small gifts.  It’s nice to have some small things to leave behind as thank you’s when you travel.  Don’t spend lots of time stressing about what would improve the quality of life for your homestay family or have a big impact – there’s no way to know that, and it’s not expected.  The organization you work for may know if there are certain things that would be appropriate, but in general any gesture will be appreciated.  Some of my favorite things to carry around that have been fun to give away are: small packs of crayons or colored chalk for kids, printed photos of my family to show, postcards of my town to leave behind, frisbees, wall calendars with interesting pictures, jams or hard candies (nothing that can spoil or melt), chinese puzzles or “get the ball in the holes”-type games, “I heart NY etc.” type mugs, kitchen towels and good sturdy reusable cloth shopping bags (the ones that Whole Foods sells are super popular – I’ve had friends request I bring them back!).   Unless you know the family already and have spent some time with them or are given a list from your organization, try to avoid bringing a bag of dry rice or something that could potentially be interpreted as “I know you’re poor and need charity.”  If you aren’t sure exactly what you will encounter, keep it light and fun and small.

    A lovely gift if you return to a place is to print out photographs from your first visit. They are always a hit!

     

When two volunteers asked to come and work with SosteNica a few months ago, we and our partner organization saw an opportunity to shift the nature of our work in Nicaragua and focus on bringing some of the food security work from the rural area into the urban, and on education and capacity building rather than on lending.  Our volunteers helped design the project, and after visiting Estili, a city in northern Nicaragua known for its mural-covered walls, they proposed including designing and painting a mural as part of the project.  For the project, we partnered with the Norwalk-Nagarote Sister City Project, and they approved of the idea and chose a wall for us on their brand new community center.  The idea was for the mural to be a community activity, bringing the youth and kids from the families in the gardening project together to express the importance of gardening in another medium.  In the end, the mural became a much broader process, involving many people who were not part of the gardening project.

SosteNica volunteer Danya and the Sister City project field director Ramon gathered a group of local kids to start a brainstorming session.  They created drawings and wrote verses and their own reasons for gardening.  Danya used the drawings in her own design that formed the base for the mural.  Ramon suggested that the kids be given an opportunity to paint directly on the wall, and so nobody really know how it was going to turn out.  The design created environments – fields, patios, a river – and the kids filled the environments with plants and animals of their own design.  Danya painted a sketch version for us to follow, and we invited some of the older kids to help lay down the base design.

Juniette (above) and Junior, whose family is part of the Urban Gardening project and has built a very creative kitchen garden with raised beds lined with recycled plastic bottles, helped often.  When the “environments” were created, we organized a community painting day and invited all the kids from the Sister City project classes, the neighborhoods where we are helping to create kitchen gardens, and the neighborhood where the community center is.  We organized colors of paints, collected empty bottles and egg cartons, bought some refreshments, found some scrap paper, and braced ourselves for chaos.  And chaos it was!

The extra table for kids to practice their plant or animal, or just to keep them occupied while the wall was overcrowded was very helpful.  Needless to say, we had a few incidents of paint throwing, uninvited additions, and squabbling, but by the end of the afternoon the mural was definitely more lively.  We continued working over the next week with smaller groups, and fell into a good groove, adding some people and using the images the original group of kids had drawn to fill in the gaps.  The final design is rich and luscious, filled with life and creativity.  There is a sign in the middle for a very simple verse that one of the kids wrote at the beginning of the process: “we protect our plants because we depend on them for our food and our good health, thank you…”

You can read more about SosteNica’s work on their homepage.  Our volunteer, Danya, maintains her own site www.danyafrench.com with pictures and descriptions of her artwork and other community art projects.

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